LARKANA, Pakistan, Oct 28 (Reuters) Guarded by security personnel bristling with AK-47 and M-16 rifles, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto today visited the family of a supporter slain in a bid to assassinate her October 19.
But with security fears still high following the attack in Karachi that killed 139 people hours after she returned to Pakistan, ending eight years of self-imposed exile, it was an impromptu visit and her movements have been curtailed.
Bhutto travelled to the town of Larkana, a few kilometres from the ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Baksh where she is staying, and also visited the families of two other supporters who died during her exile.
Television footage showed trucks packed with heavily armed security guards parked outside one home she visited as fervent supporters danced and waved black, red and green flags of her Pakistan People's Party.
''Today I came to Larkana to see the families of martyrs. I promise we will not leave these families alone because their loved ones sacrificed their lives for the cause of democracy,'' Bhutto told reporters.
Some supporters stood on rooftops, others lined the streets and threw rose petals.
However, it was expected to be a short foray outside the security of her compound.
''Most of the day she will spend at home because all the guests will call on her,'' said Jamil Soomro, her provincial media coordinator. ''She will meet with local people and party workers and some relatives.'' He said no details of Bhutto's movements would be given beforehand for security reasons.
Around 4,000 supporters turned out to welcome Bhutto back to her native Sindh province yesterday as she made her way overland from the city of Sukkur to her ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Baksh in a bullet-proof Landcruiser.
Bhutto then prayed at the tomb of her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister -- who was toppled by the military in 1977 and later hanged -- and held a news conference at her family home.
ASSASSINATION FEARS But there was no large-scale public address out in the open due to fear militants could seek to launch another assassination bid. And she was also told not to host traditional open house meetings for the public.
Oxford-educated Bhutto enjoys massive feudal support in Sindh, and is the most popular politician in Pakistan -- though by no means universally liked.
''I'd really like to hold such meetings and interact with my people, but my colleague advised me not to do this because of security threats,'' Bhutto said late on Saturday at her large compound, which sits amid rice and sugar cane fields.
At least one suicide bomber, and possibly two, attacked her convoy in Karachi as it travelled slowly through a crowd of hundreds of thousands of supporters hours after she returned to Pakistan following eight years away to avoid corruption charges.
The government blames the Karachi attack on Islamist militants based in tribal lands bordering neighbouring Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and the Taliban are entrenched.
Bhutto has said she suspects political allies of President Pervez Musharraf were also plotting against her, although she says she has no reason to believe he was involved personally.
General Musharraf granted an amnesty that allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan without fear of prosecution in graft cases hanging over her from the 1990s.
There is speculation the pair might end up sharing power after national elections due by early January, and the United States, concerned about rising militancy in nuclear-armed Pakistan, is believed to be quietly fostering a partnership.
The power-sharing prospect has drawn criticism from some who see it as a sell-out by Bhutto to the military.
Meanwhile her perceived liberalism and pro-US attitudes do not go down well with Islamic hardliners, while other critics say her time as prime minister was marked by corruption and mismanagement.
REUTERS SS MIR KP1637